For many years now, the Cooum in Chennai has remained synonymous with drainage. The longest river in the city, it originates in Tiruvallur and flows through most parts of Chennai. While it once a fully functioning waterway a few decades ago, it has become a garbage dump and breeding ground for all sorts of diseases.
*Tha, Kovam Varuma Varatha, is a 12-minute documentary featuring director Gautham Vasudev Menon narrating his experiences with Cooum. Produced by Behindwoods, the documentary includes prominent personalities from Chennai taking viewers through the origin of Cooum to its current state.
The film is an initiative to shed light on the plight of the 72 km long river that has now been deemed dead and is considered a giant drain flowing through the city.
"The river, until Paruthipet, remains relatively clean. It is only after entering the city outskirts in Maduravayol that it mixes with large quantities of waste and excreta dumped into the river and gets polluted," one of the city's residents says in the documentary.
"Cooum is a boon to Chennai, but we have turned it into a bane," he adds.
"Initially the water was clean. We used to take water from the river and cook when there was water scarcity in the city," says an elderly woman living on the banks of the river in the city, says.
The documentary delves into the plight of the people living on the banks of the river and the government's attempts at evicting them from the banks.
"The river and the people living on its banks did have a clean environment for themselves in the beginning. Knowingly or unknowingly, Cooum, the people on its banks and their lives got polluted. And we are the sole reason for this," GVM says in the documentary.
The director also recounts his experience of shooting near the river during his film Kaakha Kaakha.
"It was when we went to the location to check that we realised how this has magnified into a mammoth problem. Why is the area not being cleaned? We can use the river in a more beneficial way. When I looked into a script written sometime around 1925-1935, I found out that the Cooum connected the canals in the city and was a functional waterway then. Even boats were plying in the river."
Speaking about river rejuvenation and highlighting that all hope is not lost, Harris Sulthan, a member of Chennai based citizen group Arappor Iyakkam says, "Cooum has been declared a dead river since the time of Arignar Anna. Thames too was once declared a dead river. However, with the efforts of the government and people, the river was brought back to life and is now a considered an important river."
"Here (in Chennai), neither have we achieved anything without asking questions, nor have we not achieved anything after asking questions. Despite all these discussions, will we continue, with no pangs of guilt, to ignore the problem by putting a proud Chennaite hashtag on social media while holding our breath and walking past the Cooum? Or will we open our mouth and start asking questions?"
Watch the documentary here: